My father, John May, died early this morning. He was born John Walter May but as a 25th wedding anniversary present to my mom took her maiden name as his middle name. So John Middleton May passed away around 7 am this morning Cape Breton time. He was 89.
He has suffered from severe dementia the last few years. My brother Geoff and his wife Rebecca Lynne have been wonderful in taking care of him. Geoff did more than anyone could have ever expected to support him living in his own home as long as possible.
Who and what he was in life had slipped away long before his physical death. He was a wonderful man. Gentle, kind and very thoughtful. He grew up as the only child of older parents who had long since given up the idea of parenthood. To say his mom was unsentimental would be an understatement. He loved recalling her saying “John, are you going to not smoke and not drink and be a sissy all your life?”
He was exacting intellectually and applied a brilliant mind to accounting – his profession. He was also civic minded. My dad’s work on the open space committee of the town where I grew up led to protected wetlands and open spaces that make Bloomfield, Connecticut greener today than adjacent communities that have succumbed to sprawl. He also worked hard in a scholarship programme for inner city youth. When he was 48 years old, he decided to escape corporate culture and his job as Assistant Vice-President and Cashier of Aetna Life in Hartford Connecticut and move us all to Cape Breton Island.
He never regretted it. His interests in military miniatures were a constant through our childhoods and into his last days. We re-fought the Battle of Waterloo with my brother commanding as Napoleon and my dad, the Duke of Wellington. He hand painted the soldiers, right down to the argyle socks of the Highlanders. Once he became a Cape Bretoner, he learned Gaelic and was a very large booster of local tourism.
He also fully embraced my work in the environmental movement. He played a key role in fighting insecticide spraying in the 1970s. He dissected the pulp company’s arguments, breaking down their math. When the industry claimed that without spraying they would run out of wood, close the mill and throw 2,000 people out of work, he explained on television, “Even using the industry’s own numbers, there is more than an ample wood supply for the next 40 years.”
We kept fighting budworm spraying, uranium mining, Agent Orange and then trying to keep oil and gas out of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It was in that fight that my dad said something brilliantly insightful. He said, “You know, I think I preferred the Second World War.” And since he had grown up outside London and been subjected to the blitz and buzz-bombs and routine loss of his neighbours, I asked “How could you have preferred the war?”
And he said, “Well, you know, in those days we really felt that the government was on our side.”
So, this is only a small sharing of what John May was like as a citizen, as father and as a friend. Ironically, yesterday for Remembrance Day I posted my father’s portrait as painted by his dad for a WWII War Bonds poster. I am posting a more recent photo of my parents and my brother in our gift shop.
My brother and I recognize that his soul is free from what has been a pretty non-existent quality of life for some years. It is my hope and prayer that whatever lies beyond this mortal life (assuming anything is, which I do in faith), it includes being in his right mind and finding with joy my mother, his parents and all those he loved who have already started the next phase of life’s journey.